Zero Tolerance, Zero Success

Since President Nixon declared a ‘war on drugs’ in 1971, the United States has spent over 1 trillion dollars and has made over 45 million drug-related arrests. Almost half (47.4%) of current United States federal prisoners are incarcerated for drug-related offenses. Last year, more people were arrested just on marijuana charges alone than in all categories of violent crime.

Prisons are overflowing. Inmates are being double—and sometimes triple—bunked. The waiting lists for education and drug treatment programs are getting longer and longer. Draconian drug war sentencing and education policies have led to the marginalization of millions of Americans (disproportionately poor people and minorities) while completely failing to reduce problematic drug use, drug-related disease transmission or overdose deaths. When are we going to be able to admit that we’ve lost the war?

As arrest rates skyrocketed in the 1980’s, legislatures throughout the country began to implement extremely harsh drug sentencing laws. The federal prison system took the lead with the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. Among a number of provisions, these laws enabled a host of severe mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses. The result of these developments was to completely eradicate a sentencing judge’s discretion in considering the range of factors pertaining to the individual (and the offense) that would normally be an extremely important feature of the sentencing process. Taking away the judges’ autonomy hugely increased the number of defendants in federal court facing unjustly strict sentences for drug offenses.

The 70’s and 80’s were a breeding ground for drug hysteria. Then- Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates, infamous for his zero-tolerance attitude (“casual drug users should be taken out and shot!”) formed D.A.R.E—Drug Abuse Resistance Education—in 1983. The program, taught by your friendly neighborhood policeman, is still administered in 75% of US school districts. The curriculum encompasses a variety of things, such as why you probably shouldn’t huff keyboard duster (Lesson #5, ‘The Real Truth’)  and how to turn down all the illegal substances your friends will inevitably try to foist upon you (Lesson #9, ‘Practice! Practice! Practice! Students have the opportunity to apply assertive refusal skills’.) The lessons lean heavily on the fear factor of drug use—hence the entire thing being taught by an armed officer—and the message is almost too simplistic: drugs are everywhere, anyone who tries them will abuse them, just say no. DARE’s zero-tolerance approach also fails to make crucial distinctions between substances. Treating marijuana use the same way as heroin use kills any credibility in their message.

There have been a litany of studies published that show just how ineffective the DARE program is. Despite this, every single US President since 1988 has declared a national “DARE Day” annually. (In case you’re wondering, this year’s is April 4th.)  The ‘zero tolerance’ stance is a naïve approach to both drug control and drug education; programs backed by punitive measures often backfire completely.

There is a dangerous American precept that every individual is wholly to blame for his or her own actions, and that other mitigating societal factors (such as race, socioeconomic status, education, mental health, etc.) are not at play as well. If lengthy sentences for non-violent drug offenders and zero-tolerance drug education actually worked, maybe there could be some small rational for using them. But they don’t.  Criminalizing drugs destroys families, perpetuates a cycle of poverty and addiction, incarcerates unnecessarily, and wastes incredible amounts of tax-payer money.

Our society should be working to empower its citizens to become agents of change, not waging a war against them. It’s time to remove drug control from the ambit of criminal justice altogether and treat the use and distribution of currently illegal substances as a public health problem.


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